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Western NGOs and the tsunami test

About the author
Jan McGirk is an investigative journalist based in Jerusalem, where she now conducts research on conflict resolution.
A year on, western NGOs are being forced to learn some bitter lessons from their attempts to aid survivors of the Indian Ocean tsunami, reports Jan McGirk.

The earthquake-triggered tsunami that slammed the rim of the Indian Ocean on 26 December 2004, killing at least 250,000 people and inflicting injuries on another 188,000 survivors, plunged aid agencies into a crisis.

Ordinary people watched the horror of the huge waves replayed on television sets around the world, and the apocalyptical scale of death and destruction on the shores of thirteen countries seemed both to touch their hearts and stir an atavistic terror of drowning. Viewers responded with exceptional compassion and generosity. The earthquake struck at 0059 GMT on Boxing Day – still Christmas night in the United States – and three-storey tidal waves broke on the shore soon afterward.

By New Year’s Day, charities around the world were awash with cash. Much more kept flooding in. Medecins sans Frontieres got completely swamped and created controversy by refusing donations for wave casualties and redirecting funds towards lower-profile calamities which, they feared, would otherwise be short-changed.

One year on, after some $12 billion dollars was pledged by governments and individuals in ninety different nations for relief and reconstruction, 80% of the 1.8 million made homeless by the tsunami still are hunkered down in tents or temporary shelters miles away from their flattened or submerged communities. Their untreated sewage often is dumped straight into the ocean. Physical and mental suffering continues, and the slow pace of rebuilding frustrates all involved. Once-fertile fields burnt by salt water take time to recover. Belatedly, specific programmes for the most vulnerable victims – widows, orphans and the elderly – are only now being developed.

"I think the world was great in the tsunami", United Nations chief of humanitarian affairs and disaster relief Jan Egeland told the press on 17 December. "It did exactly the right thing. Governments, the private sector, and individuals around the world opened their hearts and their wallets. Private donations for the tsunami eclipsed anything seen before."

Yet, privately, more than 500 assorted non-government organisations which vied with one another and struggled to coordinate relief efforts with military troops from thirty-six nations, have been indulging in institutional soul-searching about what went wrong when there was so much money to throw at this problem.

Jan McGirk is southeast Asia correspondent for the Independent

Also by Jan McGirk in openDemocracy:

“Bambi vs Godzilla in Thailand” (April 2005)

“Bali’s message of dialogue” (August 2005) – this article contains the full text of the interfaith “Bali Declaration” of July 2005

“Bali’s agony, Thailand’s turmoil” (October 2005)

“Kashmir: the politics of an earthquake” (October 2005)

“Thailand’s endemic insurgency” (November 2005)

If you find this material valuable please consider supporting openDemocracy by sending us a donation so that we can continue our work for democratic dialogue

“Response to this disaster was unprecedented. It has proved to be a blessing and a curse”, says Earl Kessler of the highly respected Asian Disaster Preparedness Center in Bangkok. “Relief operations need focus to better use funds, goods, and services”, he adds. “It should never happen again that used winter garments, outdated medicines and broken toys and other debris from donor countries be distributed to affected families as part of a ‘job-well-done’. ”

As ever, Africa was given short shrift in what is generally perceived to be a wholly Asian tragedy, aside from thousands of unlucky western tourists who got swept away during their exotic winter beach holidays. Four hours after giant waves ripped through the Sri Lankan coastline, they struck the Horn of Africa. In Somalia, devastated by almost fifteen years of civil unrest, no reliable system existed to record the exact number of deaths, but the United Nations High Commission for Refugees estimates up to 200 lives were lost and around 45,000 Somalis suffered some impact.

Concrete containers of nuclear and hospital waste from Italy, dumped on the seabed off Somalia for a bargain price by cowboy waste-disposal firms, cracked open when they were dislodged and hurled ashore by the enormous waves. Weeks later, radiation poisoning and virulent infections were reported to aid workers on Somalia’s northeast coast.

The contradictions of aid

NGOs now castigate themselves for being oblivious to specific local needs and for imposing inane requirements from outside, pushing the pet agenda of their particular agencies, in order to “Build Better” after the monumental cleanup effort post-tsunami. Oxfam asserts that the challenge is the equivalent of reconstructing the cities of Glasgow and Birmingham completely from scratch, only staggering these lots around all the damaged shorelines of one of the world’s most populous regions.

Many aid agencies now recognise their folly of neglecting to get input from the local communities – unwittingly provoking caste resentments in India, for example – but most were reluctant even to consult each other. In Banda Aceh, closest to the epicentre of the 9.3 magnitude underwater quake off Sumatra (see pdf map), recovery efforts were hindered by the complete collapse of roads and bridges. Yet thirteen foreign NGOs demanded that only certified timber, guaranteed not to have been chopped from endangered forests, be used for new construction. Since none was available in the entire province, this meant extra expense and delay in waiting for imported boards to arrive from Kalimantan, at an extra cost of $4 million.

Stalling and squabbles extended the misery of survivors on almost all affected coasts, from Somalia to Tamil Nadu. Rebuilding has been delayed time and again by lands-rights disputes, missing deeds or identity cards, poor coordination and muddled policies. Many promises never materialised, and disappointed survivors were made to feel helpless again. Surely some of these problems ought to have been anticipated by experienced aid agencies.

Well-heeled charities did not waste time getting bogged down in UN bureaucracy, and there were ramifications. In a well-meaning race to do good and get recognition, records were botched or not kept at all. No one wanted an outbreak of cholera or dysentery, but some young victims risked getting vaccinated two or three times over by eager medical volunteers. Highly vaunted “cash for work” programmes, presided over by outsiders, were blamed for quashing self-help tendencies and inventiveness in many stricken villages.

“Prolonged compensation creates dependencies, with charity organisations walking a difficult and fine line between jump-starting recovery and undermining community self-help and resilience”, Earl Kessler pointed out. There were many cases of enterprising families stockpiling multiple versions of similar goods and playing one NGO off against the other. Grieving families or just illiterate ones often had to go without because they were unable to act quickly enough. And undocumented Burmese workers in Thailand, many who staffed or built the ill-fated resorts of Khao Lak, were afraid to come forward to collect government assistance out of fear of being deported.

At least 300 orphans in northern Thailand are hapless victims of the tsunami which hammered six southern provinces. Because their parents had jobs at Phuket resorts, many were orphaned in absentia by the catastrophic waves. Few of their guardians have been able to afford to travel south, identify the parents’ bodies and complete government forms to claim compensation. Legal aid for such formalities has been underfunded.

The United Nations now warns that the Indian Ocean, particularly in Aceh and Sri Lanka, may soon be overfished because donors promised so many more boats than existed before the disaster. Some traditional builders of wooden boats have lost out because volunteers funded fibreglass hulls instead. Subsistence fishermen are being outfitted with more efficient boats and nets and encouraged to industrialise, and this will inflict a heavy toll on the environment. Fishing at such a rate cannot be sustained for long, and sources of traditional livelihood are bound to vanish.

In Thailand, where the tourism industry was decimated, cataloguing corpses cost millions of extra dollars. Even now, more than a thousand bodies remain on ice and have yet to be identified and evacuated to their home countries. Other countries buried their tsunami dead in haste, sometimes in mass graves, but high-tech DNA testing is the norm in Thailand, where the government dreads giving offence to their visitors, even in the afterlife. Nonetheless, Asian visitors have stayed away from Phi Phi Island and parts of Phuket because they fear wandering “hungry ghosts”. Public purging ceremonies and exorcisms have consumed time and money.

Also on the Indian Ocean tsunami in openDemocracy:

Caspar Henderson, “Tsunami coming for us all” (January 2005)

Dave Belden, “Sin and tsunamis” (January 2005)

Antara Dev Sen, “India’s tsunami” (January 2005)

Kirsty Hughes, “Tamil Nadu after the tsunami: hopes and obstacles” (June 2005)

Aid and indulgence

Unfortunately, the self -congratulatory donors and military-turned-humanitarians couldn’t help but revel in the feel-good factor of tsunami aid, and this adversely affected subsequent disaster contributions to a highland Guatemalan mudslides and flash floods and the Kashmir earthquake in October.

The tsunami became a historical event on which to focus emotional outpouring or religious epiphanies. It took an A-list disaster to tap special US envoys, the erstwhile presidents Bill Clinton and George Bush senior, to shill for donations alongside celebrities as diverse as Ricky Martin and Halle Berry, Uma Thurman and Danny DeVito.

Before donor fatigue could set in, an ad hoc tsunami committee at one wealthy high school in Orange County, southern California, tackled fundraising with teenage gusto. It took two months to style the ultimate contributors wristbands, made from fashionable black matte neoprene (like a wet suit). These became coveted status symbols and even were auctioned off on e-Bay. Their trendy charity T-shirts omitted Thailand, Aceh, or Sri Lanka from the stylised globe stamped on the chest. But they were emblazoned, without irony, with the slogan “Look Good While You Do Good.”

Science’s mythic fuel

Meanwhile, disaster prediction is a growing field, and tsunami warning systems have proliferated in an effort aimed mostly at allaying the fears of potential tourists. A network of Indian Ocean governments failed to agree where to site the headquarters, but work proceeded apace. Unsightly warning towers are erected on many prominent coastlines, and there is even a text message service from various centres that gives timely warnings to beachgoers concerned about seismic activity. But after witnessing the sea transform into a towering wall of water that hurled manmade structures asunder, it has taken time for people to go back in the water again.

"Geomythology" has emerged as a relevant field of study for scientists and professionals responsible for disaster mitigation. Academics try to assess the frequency of cataclysmic natural events by evaluating ancient legends and then “reading the rocks” for clues and projecting a pattern. For example, they look for unusual traces of silt which could indicate past tsunamis, or for signs of tectonic upheaval along known faultlines, and compare these against oral history. Ultimately, scientists might be able to warn of a new disaster in time to avert human tragedy.

Also in openDemocracy on the impact of NGOs in developing countries:

Michael Holman, “Welcome to the aid business!” (June 2005)

The oral traditions of Moken sea-gypsies off Thailand and Jarawa tribesmen in the Andaman islands warned them to dash for high ground if ever the sea pulls back, because exceedingly high waves will follow. They did not linger to grab exposed fish, but ran for their lives.

Geomythologists who investigated a legend that mountains had thrust up from the ground overnight concluded that a volcano in Fiji, long believed dormant, is quite active. The future legends about the Indian Ocean tsunami of December 2004 are still in foment – the pregnant Indonesian who survived at sea on floating coconuts may one day be elevated to a tsunami fertility figure – but all the geophysical signs already are set in stone and on the seabed.

The force of the Sumatran quake was so powerful that the Earth wobbled on its axis and shifted small islets as much as twenty metres, according to one American expert. The tsunami will reverberate for decades in the lives of its survivors and of the well-funded aid agencies which are helping them heal.


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